Someone said a very wise thing to me.
He’s right. So I’m going to do that. I’m going to share the techniques I use to cope with my anxiety disorder, at a time when an awful lot of extra people have been temporarily drafted onto our team.
To quickly explain terms, with “Generalised Anxiety Disorder” (GAD) one’s fear is irrational. There is just fear, independent of anything, boiling and churning inside. It then tries to find something to be about. So for those who live with GAD, attaching that fear to something tangible can often be the worst thing to do. I think of it as a mad, cruel octopus living inside me, its arms reaching out to grab whatever it can, then focusing all of its efforts on that thing until I believe that that it is what I’m scared of, that it – whatever it is – is a source of enormous danger/guilt/fear. For me, detaching the octopus’s arm is a crucial part of the process, but many of the means to do so are those anyone could employ to cope when there’s a genuine source of fear out there.
So here is my list of Things I Do To Cope With Being Scared All The Time:
This is the most immediately useful one for me. I imagine other lists might put “exercise” or “healthy diet” at the top, and those are excellent things that will definitely help, but they’re always top because they look worthy. Distractions don’t feel worthy. They feel self-indulgent. And guess what! They are! Hooray! Because being self-indulgent – just a little bit, and not to the detriment of others – is crucial. I, as the unofficial President Of The Universe, give you permission to be a little bit self-indulgent.
I’m not being flippant. Doing this affords you the mental space you need to be OK. And for all the reasons you might feel guilty for giving yourself that space, you need that space! To help others, to look after your family, to get through work, you need to give your brain the mental medicine it needs.
You know what you like doing. So do it. Make time for it. If you need others’ help to make time for it, ask for it. Say, “I need time to distract my mind,” and they will completely understand. You can do the same for them later.
For me, my ideal distractions are puzzle games and podcasts. At the same time. The two occupy two different bits of my brain, allowing me to minimise the amount of brain left over for worrying. I play a difficult puzzle game on my phone (I recommend anything by Conceptis) while listening to podcasts or radio programmes. My ideal listening right now is serial dramas and 1960s comedies on Radio 4 Extra, but I might switch to bright and breezy novels on Audible, or mainline a fiction podcast with squillions of episodes.
The other new addition to my arsenal of distractions is Nanoblocks! I just found them on Amazon. They’re Lego, but for ants. The result is, you can pick up 2000-piece builds for under £20, that would cost £470 million in full-size Lego. They take just as long to build (well, longer, given how much poorer the instructions are). It’s just the result fits on your palm. I’ve bought a bunch of these, and am picking away at them in front of the TV in the evening after the boy’s in bed, watching bright, silly TV shows with my wife.
Yours might be gardening while listening to classical music. Or learning a new piece on the keyboard. Or reading a novel with glitch hop blasting in the background. Or dance. Or sing. Or draw. Or whatever it is. You know what it could be.
It’s just important that these are doing things. Curling up, lying in bed, giving your brain empty space and time to worry in, is what you’re avoiding here.
2. Help Others
There’s a corollary to the above. Too much time. Loneliness. You may cry, “But making time for myself is the last thing I need to do! All I have is time for myself.” Looking outward is essential too.
Fear makes us want to curl into a tiny ball. So fight that. Stretch out, reach out. That’s my new slogan. T-shirts available in the lobby.
There are so many ways to do this. Some of them are so obvious, so often repeated, that it’s kind of hard to hear them enough to realise you can do them. Like go put notes through the doors of elderly or restricted neighbours, asking if they need help with anything. Maybe they need food delivered, or the rubbish taken out, or just a phone number they can call to talk. (And offer what you can do – I couldn’t do the latter at all. My phone ringing is one of the worst things that ever happens – the idea of deliberately causing it… brrrrrrrrr.)
Text your friends and ask if there’s anything they need. I have a friend sending me stupid videos every now and then because he asked if he could help, and I thought that would be great. It is! Do that for someone. Honestly, receiving a buzz on my phone that doesn’t have the c-word in it is such a blessing.
Also, people are organising. In my small town, a Facebook group has been set up in association with the town council, appointing volunteers to team lead on each street, organising support networks for all who are going to need it. There’s bound to be something like that near you. And if there isn’t, you can start one.
Or you could write a far-too-long blog post about it, that waffles so much that you worry people won’t read it because of the length of the scrollbar, and then make it worse by writing this paragraph.
Focusing on what other people need is an incredibly effective way to not be thinking about your own fear.
3. Share Your Thoughts
Keeping your worries in your head is never the best plan. Saying them out loud to someone else is extraordinarily therapeutic. Heck, it is therapy.
Saying fears out loud has a number of effects. Firstly, you hear yourself saying them, and the truth or fiction of them immediately becomes more apparent. Daylight shines on them. Then having someone else hear them helps too. Especially if they laugh. No, really. Just being heard makes such a difference. And thirdly, for me it’s like mad-thought exorcism. I say it out loud, and at least a part of it comes out of me. It’s freeing.
Obviously use your sense. Don’t go find your friend with panic attacks and start telling them all your worst thoughts. But friends are there to be friends, and you can say, “Are you OK if I tell you what I’m worrying about?”
If friends aren’t available, there are just so many other options. The best, most available one is the Samaritans. They’re not just a suicide hotline, although they’re excellent for that. They’re there so anyone can talk to someone who’ll just listen. For students there’s Nightline. Also, here’s a complete list of UK helplines. Google the equivalents for you own country if you’re not in the UK.
4. Move About
See how cunningly I didn’t write “exercise”. Because I hate reading that. But then I’m a wobbly man who desperately needs to exercise. And honestly, I don’t even mean “go for a run”. I just mean, don’t stagnate.
Self-isolation obviously makes this tougher, but chances are you aren’t. And if you are, it’s just for two weeks. The rest of the time, you can go outside! You can go for a walk. Or a run. Or a saunter. Take headphones if you’re worried your brain is going to misbehave, fill your head with your preferred noise. Or perhaps you need a lack of noise, a time for your thoughts to float up into the sky, instead of having them bounce off the ceiling.
Being active really helps. I wish it didn’t. But it does.
5. Have A Routine (Have A Bedtime)
You’ll read this everywhere, because it’s really true. My biggest fear, my biggest trigger, is turmoil. Anything that breaks the normal pattern of my life. I find holidays really difficult for that exact reason. So the entire planet coming to a standstill and nothing being normal is really bloody awful. I imagine that’s not unique to those with GAD.
Routine makes such a massive difference. Knowing what you’re going to be doing tomorrow, and the next day, and the one after that. And knowing what you’re going to do in the different bits of those days. You can actively plan this, draw up a wall chart if it helps. (I’d rather cut my own legs off.)
And then stick to that routine. Routine gives children comfort and stability, and those that live in chaotic houses where little is planned or scheduled tend to have a tougher time coping with emotions. We’re all just slightly taller children. Give yourself the magic of a bedtime. Seriously. Pick a time that means you’ll get enough sleep, and then go to bed then. And set an alarm to wake up at a set time too. You’ll be so glad you did.
6. Have Faith
I mean that literally. I’m not for a moment suggesting what in, because good grief. But experience faith, experience trust. Which may seem really odd in a list like this, but remember, this isn’t How To Survive The Thing; this is How My Coping Mechanisms Might Be Helpful To Others At The Moment. And this is a really key one for me.
I am not in any way writing this to try to evangelise or whatever, and would be mortified if anyone thought I were. I just know that my faith helps big-time with this, and that being part of a community of people whose core aim is to love others is a really big benefit too.
So maybe find details about your local temple or church or mosque. Obviously meeting together for faith groups is about to become extremely tricky, but I know that not being able to meet is causing a lot of them to start looking outward. So hooray!
7. This Too Shall Pass
I can’t emphasise this one (to me) enough. This will come to an end. There will be normal again.
It’s frustratingly far away, certainly. It’s months, not weeks. But it WILL end. Every day life will go back to normal. Pubs will be open, films will come out at the cinema, and people will buy toilet roll in sensible quantities.
There are absolutely going to be long-term consequences. Especially for those who lose anyone. And for those whose businesses suffer or close. None of this is dismissed by what I’m saying in any sense.
But what I take from this is the knowledge that this isn’t forever. Because we are not cats in cupboards.
As if I need to explain that. But just in case. Shut a cat in a cupboard (by mistake, you monster) and it will WAAAAIIIIIIIILLLLL. The cat doesn’t cry because it wants out. It cries because it thinks this is forever now. The rest of its kitty life is in this tiny dark space. With anxiety, I’m so prone to cat-in-a-cupboard thinking. However I feel right now, this is how I’ll feel forever. And that’s not true.
Even if there’s a tail of weirdness, normality will gradually resume. Hold on to that.
Congratulations if you made it all the way through that. I hope some of it is helpful, or at least distracting.
The tl:dr is: Allow yourself time to take care of your own needs, and if you need others’ support to do that, ask for it. Then allow time to take care of others. Get a routine, let yourself be loved, and then impatiently await the normality that is coming.
You are great, you are tired, you deserve love.